Pouring cold water on the Ice Bucket Challenge

Most of ALS's funds don't go on the research they promise, that which does is just funneled to big pharma, and charity means governments get away with not taking action themselves. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is well intentioned, but that doesn't mean it's doing good.

Timothy Smith
3 September 2014

Doing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Wikimedia/slgckgc. Some rights reserved.The Ice Bucket Challenge has swept across out Facebook pages in recent months. It’s difficult to reload your newsfeed without seeing a friend nominated or being nominated yourself. It seems like a good initiative. Awareness is raised, funds are raised. Everyone wins. But, in reality, the main winners are those who work for ALS, on hefty salaries, who can brag about their efforts, and those who are doing the challenge, who get to feel good about themselves and who post a humorous video on Facebook.

Whilst some people genuinely want to do good for others, which is laudable, ALS ice bucket challenges are probably not the way to do it. I suspect a large number of people who do it are doing it to garner likes on Facebook. Celebrities have been doing it as a way to name-drop their famous friends. It’s become somewhat self-serving.

In terms of what has been raised there are also question marks. The ALS campaign on the face of it has been a success. Something like $70 million + has been donated to the charity. But, that is part of the problem. Many charities operate in similar fashion to businesses. This is made evident by the huge salaries afforded to ALS employees. ALS CEO Jane H. Gilbert takes home in excess of $339,000. A very healthy reward for her kind acts of charity. This is the sort of salary we might expect from some pioneers of the private sector. Of the money raised by ALS, over half of it will go to employee wages.

The charity is operating as a successful business with employees paid incredibly well. Whilst of course employees should be paid for their work, this seems high for a charitable foundation, especially when 50% of money raised goes towards wages. An effort should be made to maximise the amount of money going to the given charity, rather than offering too lavish salaries to employees. This is important in the context that only 27% of revenue actually goes to funding new research. Thus of the $70 million or so raised so far, only about $17.5 will actually fund research, which is what people donated for.

This isn’t selfless, morally guided charity, but highly rewarded pay, resembling the way a business would operate. The Ice Bucket Challenge social media campaign is a perfect example of this. By undertaking an ice bucket challenge we are essentially providing the ‘business’ with free internet marketing. It is a very clever marketing strategy.

It is also worth noting the deep connections between ALS Association and Big Pharma. Profit hungry pharmaceutical companies will and are benefiting from the ice bucket challenge as ALS Association funnel funds into them. Such close ties to Big Pharma is alarming (although expected) given their track record for fraud and their questionable practices. Ordinary people tend to be blissfully unaware of this, and the lack of money actually going to research, given the murky way in which charities operate and manipulate their data.

ALS are not the only culprits though, this is indicative of a wider trend in how charities operate and why they operate. We tend to view charity and charitable acts as positive things and as things that can alleviate social injustice. Charities are presented as benevolent, when often they undertake business like practise. ALS association for example hold $6.7 million in investments.

Charities and NGO’s dupe us into thinking we are making positive change, when often we are not. On a micro level we can make small change. A school can be built here or there for example. Which seems positive. But, at a macro level there has been little impact made. Millions- if not billions- of dollars pumped into solving world hunger, saving the environment and alleviating poverty but little real progress has been made. Surely it’s obvious that this is ineffective and is not getting to the root of the problem.

By making us feel like we’re alleviating social injustice on a global scale charity creates a climate whereby governments and powerful elites are able to shirk their responsibility to the wider community. Governments, particularly in the west, should be working to reduce inequality and provide everyone with access to high quality medical facilities. Instead though, in the Western world, they have been cutting public services and pushing this burden of ‘charity’ onto ordinary citizens. It also means that ordinary upper middle-class people can give a small amount to charity. Rich people will cut the odd big cheque and then continue to take part in the capitalist system that produces inequality, suffering and environmental degradation. Rich elites- of whom 85 people control half of the world’s wealth- have enough money to eradicate the majority of issues that charities try to address. There simply isn’t a genuine desire to do so, just a veneer of charity.

Through giving to charity we then lazily turn away and do not delve any deeper into issues. A cheque clears the conscience and allows us to go back to our day to day lives. Capitalism (at least as we know it) goes with poverty and suffering like ying goes with yang. This is how our capitalist system is arranged and charity is a convenient way to prevent us from restructuring society. The result is that we do not ask the deeper questions or make links between capitalism and social injustice, links that are staring right at us. We see these as separate, which serves governing elites perfectly.

Instead of giving a small amount of our wages to charity we should begin to question the capitalist world order in which we live in, and how that is the real cause for inequality. Instead, charities actually facilitate such a system, by allowing us to overlook the wider context for such global suffering and dig our heads in proverbial sand. We need to start making the links and accepting that the system is broken and perpetuates inequality. Questions need to be asked of our capitalist society and why it perpetuates and breeds inequality and suffering. Engaging in quasi-altruism such as an ice bucket challenge is fine, but it won’t change a broken system, it’ll merely facilitate it.


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